Sarri’s Endless Maze
Maurizio Sarri’s first nine months at Juventus have been troubled to say the least, with high expectations weighing on the manager’s mind since his first day in Turin, and consistent delays that have broken up his working rhythm. Even so, his side is still in contention to win every competition. How has Sarri gone about his ways and where do the issues afflicting his side start?
Written by Kareem Bianchi.
At the time of Serie A’s suspension, Juventus sat first in Serie A, one point ahead of Lazio and nine of Inter, who did have a game in hand. In the Champions League, the Italian champions had lost their first round of sixteen leg against Olympique Lyonnais, and the Coppa Italia would have seen Juve face AC Milan at home after they were held to a 1-1 draw in Milan.
Although neither of the first leg results placed Juventus in winning positions – in a worrying trend of underperforming during knockout away matches – the ties were not decided either.
However, before all competitions were interrupted, Juventus had one last chance to shed an overview of their progress in a must-win match, for reasons that transcend the Derby d’Italia’s mere symbolic and historical weight. Scheduled straight after the Champions League loss, manager Maurizio Sarri was under heavy scrutiny as inconsistencies and unfulfilling football prayed on the manager’s mind.
The sense of incompleteness Juve showed in every other game was further captured by the manager’s own admission during Lyon’s post-match conference. “I am finding it hard to convey the necessary speed of action required”, an upset Sarri confessed. And if managers are to be deemed entirely responsible for their teams’ misfortunes, especially when connected to alleged struggles in the implementation of their ideas, questions whether Sarri was the right man for the job logically arose.
Then, just when it appeared to be purely a matter of time before the final nail in the coffin would be put in, Juve convincingly dispatched Inter. Suddenly, the clouds storming on Sarri disappeared, as the sky turned bright and clear, and the sun’s sunshine uplifted the previously disenchanted spirits.
Once more, the storm did not last long. Likewise, whenever Juve finally seemed to have settled under a ray of light, turbulent tempests made sure to ruin the atmosphere. To which, the performance pattern raises questions that bear asking: does Juve’s instability stem from the natural learning and adaptation process to a new philosophy or is it caused by a dispute between Sarri and the players due to the former’s unconvincing ways?
Unlike at Chelsea, the manager’s training methods – accused of being repetitive and boring by Eden Hazard – have not been questioned. Since Antonio Conte was another target of the Belgian’s criticism, it can be inferred that the traditional Italian methods – involving a lot of unopposed training – is not as appreciated abroad. At Juve however, not being the bearer of the cultural shock that triggered so many loud and reproachful reactions in England, no player has had words of disapproval towards Sarri’s methods.
Nevertheless, there have been signs that some players have not detached their ideas from the previous managerial spell. Besides a few interviews, which are always hard to dissect and separate from their circumstantial value, certain aspects that indicate a collective tendency to follow certain beliefs instilled by Allegri can still be noticed clearly during performances, eleven months away from their last game under their former manager.
Despite being labeled rigid, Sarri is much more flexible than people think. With Juve’s deep roster, the manager has been able to make frequent changes and adapt to the players at his disposal. However, since Juve have not reached the heights of Sarri’s Napoli yet, his many changes are often seen as a testament to implementation difficulties.
Little do they know that given Juve’s high number of physical and athletic players, the manager has had to accept compromises like being more direct in certain situations. Make no mistake though, adapting to his personnel must not be confused with a detachment from his philosophy, which has remained intact.
Everything started when Sarri fielded a 4-3-3 shape with Blaise Matuidi and Sami Khedira in the first Serie A fixture against Parma. Two players who had marked their time at Juve with runs off the ball, and thus appeared to stand on the opposite point of Sarri’s football spectrum.
Despite their apparent incompatibility, Sarri was quick to integrate them in the starting eleven, albeit wanting to dispose of them during the summer. Although Khedira eventually confirmed his progressive athletic decline, Matuidi has been essential to Juventus ever since. Firstly because of his defensive intensity, which allows him to compensate for Ronaldo’s uninvolvement without the ball, and lastly due to his runs behind the opposition defense.
The first goal against Inter in the latest Derby d’Italia was, incidentally, set up thanks to one of Matuidi’s trademark runs through the halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. as he broke through Juve’s flat structure and prompted a collective assault on goal.
Matuidi receives a pass from Alex Sandro and crosses it into the six-yard box, where Ronaldo flicks the ball onto Ramsey for the opener.
Another player with a profile that, during Sarri’s Napoli spell, would have been labeled as unsuitable for his football is Douglas Costa. The idea of a pure dribbler not being able to survive in a team focused on quick combinations was already refuted when Eden Hazard took charge of Chelsea’s creative duties, and Costa should have followed the Belgian’s steps.
However, injuries complicated Sarri’s plan to build Juve’s attack around the winger, to which he instantly reacted by lining his team up in a 4-3-1-2 formation.
First and foremost, the intention behind adopting a diamond shape stemmed from the need to regain defensive stability, since the 4-3-3 shape accommodated dropping deep into a 4-4-2 too much. As such, a switch to a 4-3-1-2 against SPAL was reckoned fundamental to make pressing immediate. Given the narrow midfield dropping deep is never optimal as it can expose the wings, especially if combined with Sarri’s ball oriented system. Therefore, the shape was considered an ideal formation to encourage pressing. Additionally, in possession no player could guarantee Costa’s creative output from the right wing, so sticking to the 4-3-3 / 4-4-2 formation would not have suited the men at Sarri’s disposal from an offensive standpoint either.
Although in the long run, even the diamond became inadequate to restrain the players’ passive tendencies, initially it was the refreshing switch Juve cried for. With Federico Bernardeschi and Aaron Ramsey occupying the ten space, pressing actions became more effective. Especially against teams using a back three, due to the improved defensive staggering with four lines and the attacking midfielder’s high intensity while marking the pivot.
Conversely, in a 4-3-3 system the front three would have pressed the back three in a flat line, calling for Pjanić’s aggressive pressing on the opposition six, an instruction the Bosnian was not prepared to satisfy consistently.
So against SPAL’s 3-5-2 formation, Aaron Ramsey’s role was key in blocking passes to the defensive midfielder on the side of the ball. Meanwhile, with SPAL’s deepest defenders spread wide, the center-back on the side of the ball was either pressed by the striker or closest interior. Behind the first line, the fullback pushed high to press the wing-back and Miralem Pjanić stepped out on the free midfielder ahead of the six space.
Juventus’ pressing system in a 4-2-3-1 shape against SPAL’s buildup.
Moreover, in possession, the 4-3-1-2 structure also created strong connections and support for central combinations, contrarily to the 4-3-3’s struggles at producing quick passing plays and receptions between the lines – contributed to by the inappropriate midfield profiles to carry out Sarri’s standard interior instructions.
In February, after the defensive and passive nature had once again emerged and troubled Juve throughout the preceding months, Sarri decided to make a U-turn back to the 4-3-3 formation. Issues at defending width after the pressing failed as Juve were pushed back had become an unnecessary burden to endure, hence the change, once again disproving the claim that Sarri is an inflexible manager.
Playing with or against
It is hard to establish the exact reasons behind Juve’s inconsistencies, but their frequent highs and lows are usually triggered by specific trends. These correspond to moments during which the opponent is either able to threaten or pressure the defense, or Juventus fails to execute their game plan with tangible results – such as a goal or consistent chance creation.
However, whenever Juve drop back into a low block A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. instead of pressing their opponents or defending through ball possession, they are defying Sarri’s instructions (intentionally or unintentionally), jeopardizing their success due to the incoherencies these tendencies create along the line. By moving the ball around the opposition’s structure at a slow and sterile pace, Juve are unable to create the advantages necessary for their possession and combinational football to thrive. The same applies to player movements, which are fundamental to move the opposition and generate better passing solutions.
Many of these issues can be traced back to Chelsea as well, on the one hand suggesting the manager’s hard time at conveying his ideas. On the other hand, Sarri explained numerous times how many of his players in London were used to receiving the ball into their feet, which seems to be a similar trend at Juve too. So once more it becomes hard to establish the most relevant issue. What’s certain is that without evidence from a second year we do not even possess the grounds for a long term evaluation.
Taking into account Sarri’s words on his hard time conveying certain ideas, it might not be far-fetched to assert that Juve players feel the need to retreat into the shell that was so successful at guaranteeing defensive stability in the past. Ultimately, each issue appears to be closely connected to the team’s psychological momentum.
Given the learning curve Juventus find themselves stuck in – unable to take the ultimate step forward – the lack of stability in results might be a reason for such radical oscillations in performance. Consequently, the success with which they can execute actions dictates the rest of the performance from a psychological standpoint.
According to the NCBI, “research suggests that the main psychological processes that underpin momentum effects are confidence, perceived competence, and internal (ability-skill) attributions”.
The recent Derby d’Italia gives us another example that applies to Juve’s psychological momentum.
Before taking the lead, Juve’s pressure had been repeatedly bypassed following a promising first half. This pushed them deep, allowing Inter to establish in their half and recover the ball quickly due to Juve’s flat shape and thus lack of options forward when attempting to counter. In facing these difficulties, the passing became progressively sloppy, as did the movements and decision making. Negative momentum kicked in, with Juventus becoming unable to break free from it for ten straight minutes. That was until Wojciech Szczęsny initiated a quick counter through which Juve quickly climbed up the field with two passes, establishing in Inter’s half and taking the lead seconds later.
From there on, Juve never took their foot off the break for one second, dominating Inter and finally executing each of Sarri’s instructions effectively. From the high press to the quick movements and passing, all the way up to the counterpressing. All that was needed was a momentum starter to build on, after which confidence and competence drove and stimulated Juve’s intentions.
It isn’t that Sarri has not been able to convey his principles to the team since when Juve are at their best every one of them is displayed with clearness. Rather, perhaps, that he has not yet been capable of infusing the necessary confidence in his game model to his players for them to be less reliant on random momentum starters. In which case, the hypotheses regarding Juventus’ performance fluctuations could be cut down to two: either they need additional time to adapt or a worrisome inability from Sarri to stimulate his players is denying consistent results. In the latter scenario, an early Champions League elimination or a Serie A downfall would be the highest form of an alarm signal. That is if the competitions were to resume.
Anything other than a deep Champions League run or a Serie A title would be a failure. These were the agreements at the start of the season and Sarri is well aware of Juventus’ high expectations.
Thus far it has been hard to summarize his time in Turin, given the frequent highs and lows, but the impression is that the majority of the players back their manager and are eager to follow his path. However, what remains to be seen is whether good intentions and praises will be met by the results’ hard-hitting facts.
Sarri’s first managerial spell at a high achieving club could not have been more testing, with a pandemic outbreak and Lazio fully on course to challenge Juventus head-on in a title race that still, up to this day, remains a mystery.